ORLANDO – Steve Clifford, who is usually about as subtle as a punch in the mouth when it comes giving his unadulterated opinions on specific breakdowns in games, perfectly summed up the root of why his Orlando Magic lost a heartbreaker to the surging Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night.
None of the ancillary stuff that went on in a wild, back-and-forth shootout-of-a-game mattered more than the primary cause for failure, Clifford insisted.
``Our offense was more than good enough to win, and we can look at all these other things – did they step out of bounds and the free-throw differential and all that,’’ Clifford said through a voice cracking after yelling through 53 minutes of game action. ``But the bottom line is we couldn’t guard a high-pick-and-roll, which is hard to do. But we’ve got to do a lot better than that.’’
The Magic drilled a season-high 20 3-pointers, including one by guard Terrence Ross with 6.1 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime, but its defensive woes all night against guard Jamal Murray and center Nikola Jokic ultimately led to a crushing 124-118 OT loss to Denver at the Amway Center.
Orlando (12-13) saw its modest two-game winning streak come to an end, while West-leading Denver (17-7) pushed its winning spree to seven games. That happened largely because the Nuggets shot a scorching 54.9 percent from the floor and drilled 11 3-pointers and 23 free throws. The Magic missed eight of nine shots and all six of their 3-point tries in the overtime period, but in the end, they put the blame for the second loss to the Nuggets in as many weeks squarely on their defensive struggles.
``In the overtime, we couldn’t control the pick-and-roll or the high pick-and-roll the whole game and that’s why we lost,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who had 26 points and six 3-pointers but fouled out with two minutes remaining in the extra period and was whistled for a costly technical foul in a one-point game.
``We made a pretty good adjustment in the fourth quarter late, but I’m thinking about late in the third quarter when we have a (six-point) lead and they just came back with mid-pick-and-roll with floater after floater,’’ Fournier added. ``To me, that was the key.’’
The Magic missed out on an opportunity to surge above .500 for the first time since they were 1-0 in mid-October when Murray scored 31 points and handed out eight assists and Jokic – an early MVP candidate – compiled 12 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds. Paul Millsap (18 points), Juancho Hernangomez (14 points), Monte Morris (13 points) and Trey Lyles (12 points) were also beneficiaries of Orlando’s spotty defense.
Magic center Nikola Vucevic had 24 points and 15 rebounds, while Aaron Gordon chipped in 19 – 13 of them coming consecutively for Orlando in the first quarter. Ross scored 17 points and hit three 3-pointers off the bench – none bigger than the shot drawn up by Clifford to get him an open look from the right wing to tie the game at 112.
The Magic shot better than 55 percent most of the game and finished at 47.5 percent. Also, they made 20 of 49 3-pointers, which is even more significant when considering that Denver came in first in the NBA in 3-point percentage allowed on the season (31 percent).
Still, the Magic felt like they lost a winnable game after their defense betrayed them against the red-hot Nuggets, who took over sole possession of first in the West when the Los Angeles Clippers lost on Wednesday.
``It’s frustrating when we had them in the fourth and had a chance to go into overtime and win it, so it (stinks),’’ Ross said. ``For sure, it could have been a lot of different things (causing the loss). I’ve got to watch the film, but it was probably (the defense) on the high pick-and-roll.’’
Added Vucevic: ``We played a really good game offensively and made 20 threes, but we just couldn’t get stops consistently. They’re a good team, they have a lot of good scoring options and they do a very good job of running their stuff, especially through Jokic. It’s always tough when you take a team to overtime and lose, but we definitely could have done a better job defensively.’’
An Amway Center crowd of 16,636 saw a classic of a game that featured 21 lead changes and 14 ties – six of those lead changes and five of those ties coming in the fourth quarter.
There wasn’t much separation between the two teams until the overtime period when Orlando missed its first six shots – four of them from 3-point range – and Denver pulled ahead 121-114. The Magic got back within 121-118, but Vucevic had a rebound knocked out of his hands and the ball caromed off of Jonathan Isaac and out of bounds. That returned possession to the Nuggets where Murray appeared to have stepped out of bounds, but the miscue was not whistled by officials. Murray sank two free throws to ice the victory for the surging Nuggets.
Afterward, referee crew chief Marc Davis cited rule 13, Section A, No. 7 as to why there was no replay review of the non-call. Said Davis: ``An out of bounds may be reviewed if it is called or if the officials have doubt as to whether the ball was out of bounds. It was never called out of bounds, and so there was no trigger (for a video review). So, it wasn’t a reviewable matter.’’
Orlando, which came into the game last in the NBA in free throw attempts per game, didn’t attempt its first free throw until the 9:13 mark of the fourth quarter. Through regulation, the Magic had just four makes on four attempts. In the 30-year history of the franchise, the Magic’s record for fewest free throw makes in a game was three and the record for fewest free throw attempts was five – both set last March against Toronto. They didn’t eclipse those franchise lows until the overtime period. For the game, the Magic were eight of eight from the free throw line – but they were outscored 23-8 in free throw points by the Nuggets.
``We took a lot of threes, but they were open threes, so to me those were the shots that were there,’’ Clifford said. ``We took them, but we should’ve driven the ball more.’’
Orlando’s 20th 3-pointer of the night proved to be a huge one as Clifford drew up an inbounds play for Ross and he confidently drilled a 27-footer from the right wing with 6.1 seconds left to knot the game at 112. Murray got off a fade-away shot in the final second of regulation, but it rimmed out and the two teams headed to overtime.
``I thought somebody was going to be trailing me or switching out for sure, but when I saw there was nobody around, I took my time,’’ Ross said of the wide-open look he got when the Nuggets bit on Fournier being the top target on the play.
The Magic were playing less than 24 hours after whipping the rival Heat in Miami. The victory allowed Orlando to move to 3-3 on a six-game road run that took them from Denver to Los Angeles to Oakland to Portland to Phoenix to Orlando and to Miami.
Wednesday’s game was rematch for the Magic and Nuggets after Denver won 112-87 in a romp in the Mile High City on Nov. 23. That night, Orlando shot just 40 percent from the floor and got hammered on the offensive glass – two areas of concern coming into Wednesday’s game.
``It was a really competitive game, down the stretch both teams really competed and played to win, but we just came up short,’’ Vucevic said. ``It was definitely a good game to be a part of. I’m sure it would have been much better if we had won, but we did put up a much better effort than we did in Denver. We lost, but at least we did some things better against them.’’
After a taxing road-to-home back-to-back set of games in Miami and at home Wednesday against Denver, the Magic will get an off day on Thursday. The Magic will be action next on Friday night when they face the Indiana Pacers at the Amway Center.
Down two at the half, the Magic surged to a lead as large as six points twice in the third period, but they weren’t able to hang onto the advantage and actually trailed Denver 88-86 as the fourth quarter began. Orlando drilled eight of 11 3-point shots in the third quarter, but it fell behind because of the play of lesser-known Nuggets such as Morris and Beasley. Those two combined for 12 points in the third quarter.
Now, after struggling defensively all night and getting badly outscored from the free throw line, the Magic must try and pick up the pieces so that they can start another winning streak.
``I thought we played pretty good offensively, but defensively we just couldn’t get a stop,’’ Gordon said. ``We just weren’t aggressive enough on the ball-handler (on pick-and-roll plays) and we’ve got to get into their space a little more and be more physically.
``It did (have a playoff feel), but they’re a good team and we still played well enough to win,’’ Gordon added. ``But they came out on top and we’ve got to be better.’’
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